If you're a young gay athlete in 2012, you have very few role models to look up to. There isn't a single openly gay player in any of the five major American sports — football, basketball, baseball, hockey, and soccer — and, though the leagues have begun to express opposition to discrimination based on sexual orientation, huge amounts of work remain to be done.
However, a few ex-professionals and college players have come out after they finished playing, and another has joined their ranks: Stephen Bickford, a former U.S. U-18 National Team member, Adidas High School Player of the Year, and University of North Carolina starter.
Bickford wrote a long piece for the blog Gay4Soccer about his experiences as a top-level athlete in the closet. The whole thing is worth reading, but here's a highlight:
For anyone who can't understand how or why an athlete would hide his sexual orientation for his entire career, here it is. When sport is the thing you care about most in the world, and the thing you devote all of your time and energy toward, anything that could compromise your success is viewed as a crutch, even if it's something as essential to your identity as your sexual orientation.
In Bickford's case, the deception caught up with him, and a spate of depression and injuries eventually drove him out of soccer. His story is disturbing and inspiring, and as good of evidence as any that homophobia needs to be rooted out of sports as soon and as aggressively as possible.